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Politicsby Fern Shen3:19 pmMar 7, 20160

A long life of public service, with a remarkable last act

Retired judge Thomas Ward, appointed in 2014 to head Baltimore’s Liquor Board, died yesterday at his home in Bolton Hill.

Above: Tom Ward outside his Bolton Hill home last year. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“A major life force.”

That was Patrick Ward’s apt way of beginning an email to family and friends summing up the protean life of his father, retired judge Thomas Ward, confirming that Ward died yesterday at his Bolton Hill home at the age of 89.

At a funeral scheduled on Saturday (and of course an Irish wake to follow), people from all walks of life in Baltimore will be reflecting on Ward’s long and distinguished career. They will try and cover it all, from his service in World War II to his time as a Circuit Court judge and city councilman to his tireless efforts over the years to save historic neighborhoods and keep the memory of the city’s Irish railroad workers alive.

But for many it will be Ward’s amazing last act on the public stage, his chairmanship of the historically corruption-prone Baltimore Liquor Board, for which he will be remembered.

Tasked with flushing the liquor-industry bias and dysfunction out of this Augean Stables-of-an-agency, Ward blasted it from the outset with his deep-seated egalitarianism and no-nonsense approach to the law and everything else.

“The policies are going to be clear, and they will find they can’t get away with some of these things and they’ll stop trying,” Ward said, speaking with The Brew after his appointment to the job by then-governor Martin O’Malley in June 2014.

“It’s not going to be political, I can tell you that.”

Cutting Down on “Lawyer’s Tricks”

Even before his first hearing, Ward announced that he planned to make the weekly Liquor Board hearings more community friendly and less intimidating to non-lawyers.

He said, for instance, he was ending the practice of allowing the liquor lawyers to act in the weekly hearings as if the rules of evidence are in effect, barking out formal “objections” to testimony, stopping some complaining next-door-neighbor to a nuisance tavern in mid-sentence, arguing that her comments should be stricken as “hearsay” or “inadmissible.”

“This is not a Circuit Court. It’s a public forum for people to come in and state their views,” Ward said. “The purpose is not to see how many lawyers can trick each other into submission.” Communities, Ward said, should not feel like they need to have a lawyer to get fair treatment.

Tom Ward (l) faces attorney Mel Kodenski, as fellow commissioner Harvey Jones listens. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Tom Ward (l) faces attorney Mel Kodenski, as fellow commissioner Harvey Jones listens. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The other practice for which Ward had a passionate dislike was the so-called 200-foot rule, something invoked by liquor lawyers to invalidate petition signatures or testimony if the person lived more than 200 feet from the establishment.

“That’s out the window with me,” he said. “Anybody who lives anywhere in the neighborhood can say what they want as long as it pertains to the issue. We’re going to use common sense. A neighborhood is a neighborhood.”

A Mini-History Lesson

As willing as he was to make the conduct of hearings more informal, Ward was also mindful of the law and open to legal critiques of his positions.

The Ward board adhered consistently to the 180-day rule after a Community Law Center attorney hammered home to him the way ignoring it created “zombie” licenses and after former Senator George W. Della Jr. explained the rule’s origins, in an appearance at a Liquor Board hearing.

Audiences watching these Ward-led City Hall proceedings, by the way, got a mini-history lesson along with whatever else compelled them to watch them in person or on Charm TV.

“Tell me the address again,” he would say, going on to recall some liquor establishment as it was 30 years ago, or that it was next to a now-defunct broom factory or that it was a restaurant that served excellent oysters and had a taciturn bartender who could juggle the beer glasses.

Liquor Board watchers joked that there ought to be a drinking game – a shot for every time Ward invoked the good old days or intoned “a liquor license is a privilege, not a right.”

Ward’s at-times tough treatment of licensees quickly wowed proponents of Liquor Board reform (“I think I’m in love,” one of them tweeted, after watching him in action.)

But there were critics  as well and they could be harsh. For months, an anonymous Internet troll put photos of the octogenarian chairman into a meme-generator and circulated the resulting vicious, mocking anti-Ward fliers on the Internet.

When some of them turned up on walls and light poles in his Bolton Hill neighborhood, neighbors were up-in-arms, but Ward, unconcerned about the smear, brushed it aside.

“Dad does not seem upset,” his son Patrick Ward said at the time. “He’s pretty sure he knows who it is.”

Passion for Preservation

Patrick Ward said today he thought of the Liquor Board as possibly, “the least of his [father’s] accomplishments, especially as we see it dismantled.” (After a year, Ward stepped down and Gov. Larry Hogan’s appointee, Benjamin A. Neil, took the helm of the agency.)

There is more the public ought to know about his father, he said, such as the elder Ward’s under-appreciated role in stopping the East-West Expressway or the time his then-80-year-old dad chased down a would-be burglar who was roughly half his age and held him until the police came.

Tom Ward, right, with Bill Barry. One of Ward's causes was preserving the history of Irish railroad workers, in particular through the Irish Railroad Workers Museum on Lemmon Street. (Photo by Fern Shen).

Tom Ward, right, with Bill Barry. One of Ward’s causes was preserving the history of Irish railroad workers, in particular through the Irish Railroad Workers Museum on Lemmon Street. (Photo by Fern Shen).

“He has told me that he introduced the first minimum wage bill and first civil rights bills in Baltimore, and he was the father of the tree planting, with lots of interesting stories about how he funded that,” Patrick Ward wrote this morning. “And of course, he wrote the charter and was the vision behind CHAP, which was his first line of defense to protect Mt. Vernon, Federal Hill, Fells Point, and Canton from the road.”

Even as new leadership of the Liquor Board makes changes, in some cases reversing the Ward Board’s rulings, critics said Ward’s accomplishments there have a lasting effect. They remain heartened by his time as chairman, community leaders say, even as they continue to push for reform.

“We were lucky to have his recent leadership on the Liquor Board,” said Karen Dauksis Stokes, chief executive of Strong City Baltimore, writing on Facebook. “What a great public servant!”

Patterson Park residents outside City Hall celebrate following the Liquor Board's decision to deny a liquor license transfer. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Patterson Park residents celebrate outside of City Hall in 2014 following the Liquor Board’s decision to deny a liquor license transfer. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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